“Basket Case” (1982)
Directed By Frank Henenlotter
Starring Kevin Van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner, Robert Vogel, Diana Browne, Lloyd Pace, Bill Freeman, Joe Clarke and Ruth Neuman.
“What’s in the basket? Open it if you dare.” Writer/director Frank Henenlotter introduced us to a unique form of terror with the Bradley Brothers in the 1982 cult fan favorite “Basket Case.”
The film stars an extremely talented cast, including the one-of-a-kind Kevin Van Hentenryck in the lead role as Duane Bradley: A young country bumpkin who’s making his first trip to the Big Apple with only one motivation—revenge. Carrying only a wad of cash, a single backpack and large wicker basket, Duane checks into a grimy, run-down hotel where he and his deformed, Siamese twin brother Belial set out on a bloody rampage to seek and destroy the doctors that separated them against their will.
Shot entirely in New York City with a limited budget of $35,000, Henenlotter and his skeleton crew of just four to five members set out to create a very clever film that carries the eerie subject matter considered the “talk of the town” back in the late ’70s and early ’80s—deformity.
Unlike the few films I’ve seen on this subject, like Brian De Palma’s 1973 film “Sisters” and 2009’s “The Unborn,” written and directed by David S. Goyer, Henenlotter develops a very simple story with likeable and dislikeable characters you can easily identify with and get attached to in enough time to form an emotional anchor.
After the fourth killing in the film’s storyline, there’s a break in the plot that gives us some background on where Duane and Belial came from.
Before the flashback starts, there’s a scene involving Duane and Casey (played by the feisty and lovely Beverly Bonner) where Casey discovers Duane sitting at the bar by himself with Belial inside the wicker basket. She approaches him and they engage in smalltalk. During the conversation there’s a moment where Casey realizes Duane is upset about what’s been going on. Although he never mentions the main reason why he’s upset, she comforts him and asks him if he would like to have a few drinks with her. Feeling he needs some sort of a personal outlet to escape the iron grip of his brother, Duane goes off with Casey to have a few drinks.
A bit later, the two are laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Then, out of nowhere, Casey asks the most frequent question that’s asked throughout the entire film, “What’s in the basket?” Without skipping a beat, Duane responds with “My brother.” The two immediately start laughing. Casey thinks it’s a joke, but after laughing for a moment, Duane goes off on a tangent and tells Casey the whole story. This unfortunately shifts the mood from the “breaking the ice” stage of creating a new friendship to an unsettling tension.
In this particular section, there’s two pieces of brilliant storytelling. First, Van Hentenryck gives an amazing performance as he’s telling Casey the details about his past. He takes a very interesting approach where he mixes all the character’s traits to sculpt his performance. He mixes his quirkiness, his anger, his haunted past, his sadness and —most effective—his charming charisma that hits the nail on the head during this pinnacle moment in the film. It’s the linchpin that ties the entire point of the film’s storyline together, and at this moment we’re only at the end of the second act of the film. Usually the entire point comes together at the climax, when every aspect is set in stone and you step back to see the big picture.
The second segment that gave this film its full four-star rating was Henenlotter’s clever writing. Going back to the start of the scene, after Casey pops the question about what’s in the basket Duane carries around everywhere he goes, Van Hentenryck’s character begins to describe in detail the whole birth and existence of him and his deformed brother, Belial.
“He’s deformed. A freak. He looks like a squashed octopus. Our mother died giving birth to us. He was attached to my right side. They wouldn’t let us go to school or anything. They kept us hidden. We were the big family secret. Everyone hated us except our aunt. He likes the dark. He doesn’t like to be seen, not even by me sometimes. And you know what else—he talks to me—up here.”
Without going further with the remaining bits of this scene, I’ll just sum it up and say what Duane said was everything the film’s storyline is about. Henenlotter’s general flow of dialogue may seem sketchy to some avid film critics or film viewers, but if you really think about it, the simple writing does make all the difference in this film.
For me, I like everything to be flushed out and in the open to the viewer, so you absorb more information and see if you can get something a little more in-depth. But here, we have fairly simple—actually very simple—writing going on that works with the limited budget Henenlotter and his crew had. Sometimes shorter is better than the long, extended version, which is usually what the director or writer had in mind when they first start mapping out an idea for
Plus, in favor of Henenlotter’s writing, the doctors who conducted the surgery on Duane and Belial all got their names based on what task they performed during the surgery. For example, Dr. Lifflander is the surgeon who lifts Belial away from the incision after he’s cut from Duane’s side. Dr. Needleman is the name of the surgeon who injects Duane and Belial with the anesthesia that puts them both under during the surgery. The last doctor who took them apart during the operation, besides Duane’s father, was Dr. Kutter, who cuts Belial from Duane. Is it simple, clever and effective? Very much so.
I could go on for many hours talking about how inspiring this film is to me, because I find myself in the same place Henenlotter and the rest of his cast and crew were at when they shot this film in 1982—as a struggling young filmmaker. But one of the many things I really adore about this film is the fact that it’s shot for little to no money, and although it’s very tongue-in-cheek, it does create a unique gem that demands at least one viewing, even if you’re not a fan of the genre.
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars